Carbon Emission Reduction Strategies Need New Tools and Technologies But Where Are They?

December 17, 2017 – Two years after the nations of the world came together in a nearly-unanimous show of support for tackling climate change, there is little evidence to show that progress towards carbon reductions and a zero-emissions future are any closer to being put in place by governments, industry, and individuals.

Carbon pricing in its various forms: either a tax or through cap-and-trade reduction schemes, is at best timid, and at worst, non-existent throughout much of the world. The United States under a new president has reversed course to be the only nation on the planet pretending carbon in the atmosphere is not a problem.

In The Economist last month, an issue’s lead story was “What They Don’t Tell You About Climate Change.” It pointed out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has assumed that taking carbon out of the air would be one of the tools needed for the nations of the world to meet the objective of keeping global warming below a 2 Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) degree mean temperature rise. That requires technologies capable of capturing carbon to the tune of 810 billion tons by the turn of the century, equivalent to the amount our current world economy produces at current polluting rates, every two decades.

But so far carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), whether through technology fixes added to coal-fired power plants, such as the Saskatchewan Boundary Dam in Canada, capable of grabbing about 2 million tons of CO2 from its emissions annually, are few and far between. And natural carbon sinks like forests aren’t exactly increasing in size throughout much of the world with deforestation activities still prevalent in tropical countries such as Indonesia, the Congo, and Brazil.

There are projects to capture CO2 directly from the air, but these are largely pilots and small, making little of an impact to date because of the high cost of developing the technology to scale it up where it could truly impact the atmosphere. And then there is the lack of political will to put the kind of money needed for the effort.

There are even nascent efforts to give CO2 commercial value. Again the efforts are small scale such as CarbonCure, a company in Nova Scotia that adds captured CO2 to its concrete building blocks. Others are trying to create synfuels out of CO2. But without governments creating incentives to get these types of projects to a point where they can be successful commercial ventures, progress is creepingly slow.

The underlying reduction strategy problem is the decidedly limited set of tools in place for measuring carbon in every aspect of our lives. Governments don’t want to take on creating the means to measure individual carbon footprints. Instead, the easier road is being taken.

In Canada, the federal government is mandating a carbon pollution levy starting at $10 CDN per ton. Originally the tax was to begin in 2018 but based on the latest announcements from Environment Canada it appears it will begin sometime in the latter part of next year. Why the delay? The Minister in charge has recently stated the extra time is needed to get all Canadian provinces and territories on board so that there is uniformity in applying the federal tax. As a consumption tax, a $10 levy will translate to a few cents per liter at the gas pump, or on the price of other fossil-fuel based products. Will this help Canadian consumers to understand better their personal carbon contribution? No.

Assessing life cycle CO2 contributions requires a much more concerted effort than a consumption tax. In everything we manufacture, in everything we buy, CO2 emissions are present. How do we calculate the numbers? What efforts are being made by universities, colleges, industry, and business, to create emissions assessment toolkits to help measure where each of us is currently in terms of our CO2 budget? If we know the numbers it makes it far easier to find places where we individually can create reductions.

I’ve called for my country to create a Canadian carbon guide and calculator to give to everyone in the country so that we know our personal contribution to the carbon problem. I’ve suggested we create a carbon currency and annual budget for every Canadians to know what they are spending in terms of carbon coin. Every industry and business needs a similar carbon guide and calculator. We cannot kick the carbon can further down the road and hope to keep global mean temperatures from exceeding the global threshold commitment of no more than a 2 Celsius rise.

And finally, technologies to suck CO2 out of the air, not just from smokestacks attached to industry, needs government attention now and that means investments of hundreds of billions of dollars per decade to get us to below zero-carbon emissions by mid-century, reducing the global atmospheric volume of greenhouse gases and particularly CO2.


     The cover illustration of the November 18, 2017 “The Economist.”




Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...